ESSAYS, ARTICLES, & REVIEWS
TURNER CLASSIC MOVIES:
A BLESSING ON MY HOUSE
Dec. 28, 1998
I seem to hate just about every new movie that I see, and since I am neither assigned to see these films nor paid to review them, it’s strictly an issue of what fires me up emotionally. In the year or so I’ve had this website, not a single new film has fired me up in a positive way; that’s why all the reviews on this site are negative. Reading all of these negative reviews, one might surmise that I don’t like movies. Well, I love movies. I just don’t like many recent ones.
While I was away in New Zealand recently, God chose to smile on me and put a blessing on my house: my cable company added Turner Classic Movies to the basic cable line-up. I could now easily dispense with all of my other movie channels: HBO, Showtime, The Movie Channel (I don’t get Cinemax), AMC, Bravo,
the Independent Film Channel and the Sundance Channel. For my money, all of the good movies are on TCM. (It’s unfortunate that the abbreviation looks so much like TMC, The Movie Channel.)
There’s an old saying in film distribution that goes: "In the film business, the only positive thing is the negative." This means that when everything is said and done, whoever owns the negative is probably in the best position, and in the course of time will be able to continue making more deals.
Obviously, Ted Turner heard this old expression and took it very seriously. I believe that the Turner film library is the biggest in the world. It was collectively known as the "MGM Library" when Turner purchased it, but it also includes many films produced by other studios. Many of these films were shown from a Wednesday until a Friday on their original release, then put in a vault and never shown again.
Since most of the silent movies made between 1890 and 1927 no longer exist, I’ve always wondered how all of the early sound films from the late 20’s and early 30's were holding up. I’m very pleased to report that everything I’ve seen from the Turner Library looks great! The print of Cecil B. DeMille’s 1919 film "Male and Female" was almost perfect: not a speck of dust, no breaks, and all of the proper tinting. (As a little historical note, nearly all silent films were tinted on their original release – blue for night scenes, gold for interiors – but any prints made after the original release did not contain the tinting.)
"Male and Female" (1919) – This is a darn good Cecil B. DeMille picture, meaning it was only 20- 30 minutes too long and only a moderate bore. Gloria Swanson, who shot to stardom due to this film, was absolutely stunning. She is 22 years old, and has just about the most incredible eyes of anyone that was ever in movies. As she herself said 31 years later in "Sunset Blvd.", "Sound? Back then we had faces." Well, Gloria Swanson has a face all right; her eyebrows are a show unto themselves. Her use of her hands is pretty amazing, too.
Thomas Meighan in the lead is a stodgy bore, but Alvin Wyckoff’s photography is beautiful.
Oddly, 90 minutes into the picture, for absolutely no good reason, Mr. DeMille does a flashback to ancient Babylon 4000 years ago where a vaguely
similar version of the present-day story we’re watching is taking place. This sequence contains the film’s most famous scene (another famous one was of Gloria getting into a bathtub). A very big, real lion lies on top of an obviously real, tiny little Gloria Swanson, who was 4’11" and never weighed 100 pounds. You watch the scene thinking, "Yep, that’s really Gloria Swanson, and that’s really a lion, all right. I wonder what this has to do with anything?" The answer is: nothing. What was particularly fun for me, however, was seeing the rest of DeMille’s entire career lurking in that utterly extraneous Babylon scene. I could almost hear him saying, "Ooooh! Ooooh! Big sets, scantily-clad dancing girls, long lines of soldiers – spectacle! This is the way to go."
"Anthony Adverse" (1936) – This was one of the big Oscar nominees of that year; it lost "Best Picture" to "The Great Ziegfeld". It won "Best
Supporting Actress" for Gale Sondergaard, and she’s very good as the weird, evil love interest. Based on a big bestseller, and at 141 minutes, "Anthony Adverse" is an interesting example of the "sprawling" school of storytelling, in very much the same style as Edna Ferber (who was also quite popular at this time). The story spans 40 or 50 years, during which the Napoleonic Wars occur. Fredric March and Olivia DeHavilland are the star-crossed lovers that can never seem to be in the same place at the same time. Claude Rains is, as always, wonderful as the bad guy. The best things about the film are Tony Guadio’s Oscar-winning photography and the outrageous MGM sets which recreate Italy, Cuba and Africa (where March becomes a slave trader for a while) without ever leaving Culver City or resorting to the use of a stock or 2nd unit shot. Erich Wolfgang Korngold’s score is truly absurd: bashing, booming and clanging when nothing is happening on the screen.
"They Won’t Forget" (1937) – This film is famous for launching the career of Lana Turner, who was supposedly sitting at the soda fountain at Schwab’s drugstore, wearing a very tight sweater, when she was spotted by producer Walter Wanger. The word is that she was 16 years old when she did this film. Let me tell you, brother, she is one well developed 16-year-old, and had to be going on 17 very soon. I will simply join the consensus and say that Lana looks terrific her tight sweater and skirt. There is one tracking shot of her walking up the sidewalk that is almost obscene. ("It’s like jello on springs.")
The story of "They Won’t Forget" was very provocative for 1937, and was clearly following up on Fritz Lang’s film "Fury" from the year before. In a small southern town, a cute girl (Lana Turner) is killed. Three men are suspects: her teacher, who we saw coming onto her; her boyfriend, played by a very young, jive Elisha Cook, Jr.; and the black janitor. The new D.A., played by Claude Rains in his usual feisty manner and with a ridiculous southern accent, is going to nail somebody for this murder, even though there’s no real evidence. For a little bit, both we and the janitor believe it will be pinned on him simply because he’s black. As the press exploits the story, and superimposed ticker-tapes go past saying, "Exploit racial angle," the story veers away from the racial angle. Claude Rains goes after the teacher, whom he promptly prosecutes and indicts entirely on circumstantial evidence.
In a clever shot, the lynch mob chases the teacher across a railroad yard, and the camera swings over to a mailbag being yanked off an item that looks just like a scaffold. At the end, the teacher’s wife tells Claude Rains and the fast-talking reporter that her husband was innocent. She leaves, and the reporter quips, "So, who do you suppose actually killed that girl?" Claude Rains shrugs, "Who knows?"
"Our Dancing Daughters" (1928) – This is the film that launched Joan Crawford to stardom, and she really looks like she’s working her ass off for it. This film is considered the quintessential Roaring 20's/Jazz Age movie (along with "It"). It’s sort of like watching an F. Scott Fitzgerald novel without any of the cynical social commentary. Three cute flapper girls are confronted with a moral dilemma: should they put out before marriage? Joan, the wildest jazz-baby of the bunch, puts out and regrets it. Nevertheless, she has all the fun and has a terrific Charleston number. Being made in 1928, the year after sound occurred, this film has no idea whether it’s a sound or a silent film. A phone rings and we hear it; the character answers it, speaks, and nothing comes out; then it cuts to a title card. It also has wall-to-wall music and several "Winchester Cathedral" abodeo-doe-type songs for good measure.
So you see, I do like movies and I get a big kick out of them all
the time. Luckily for me, since I can’t get the stimulation I crave from new movies, there are still thousands of old movies I haven’t seen yet.